I know the concept of a Vin/Chris feud has been explored already this is just my "take" on how and why one might develop. As always, my medical knowledge is nil so forgive any inaccuracies in diagnosis, treatment or healing time.
I'm just in it for the money.
Thanks again to the K-girl for inspiration, appreciation, and the occasional Bombay Sapphire.
"What the hell do ya mean he ain't comin'?" Vin said, jaw clenched as he fought to control his mounting anger.
"He was out at the cabin, got to thinkin' on Sarah and Adam I guess, and the next thing you know he was in town drinkin' again," Buck explained. "Won't last long - day or two - he'll be back to himself."
"And what does he expect me to do while he climbs himself out of the bottle?" Vin asked with fury.
"Now, come on Vin," Buck reasoned. "You know how he gets. It ain't like you need him to go along "
"I didn't ask him to come along," Vin interrupted, "he invited himself. I was gonna go earlier but he wanted to come along so I changed my plans. That's fine with me, he's welcome. But I ain't sittin' around here again just waitin' for him to come out of a drunk."
"Hell, Vin, you're bein' kinda hard on him, ain't ya?" asked Buck, his own dander beginning to rise at the hard-heartedness he felt Vin to be showing his oldest friend. "It's Adam and Sarah, you know?"
"Yeah, hell, I know. I know all about it. We all do. I don't begrudge a man his mournin' in its time. But it seems to me he's been usin' it as an excuse to drown himself every time he gets the notion. Seems to me it'd be an embarrassment to the memory of them fine folk that he can't think on 'em without gettin' liquored up."
"You gonna tell 'im that?" Buck challenged.
"Hell yeah I will, if you get outta my way!" Vin shouted back.
"What's so all important about him goin' with you anyway? You said you'da gone without him. So just go!"
"I will. But not before I give him a piece of my mind."
"Why, Vin? He's been drunk before. Why you makin' such a fuss over this?" Buck asked.
But Vin was gone, shoving his way past Buck and into the boardinghouse room where Chris Larabee lay in a drunken stupor, unaware of the fury he had unleashed.
+ + + + + + +
"Josiah!" Buck shouted as he skidded around the corner of the church. "Get a Bible, crucifix, holy water, and yourself down to the boardinghouse. Vin and Chris are gonna be at it any minute and it's gonna take the both of us and all the powers that be to stop 'em before they start swappin' lead."
"Lord Almighty," Josiah exclaimed, dropping into a fast pace beside Buck as he headed back in the direction he had come. "What happened?"
"I can't say as I exactly understand it myself. But Chris is dead drunk and Vin is breathin' hell fire."
"And the two of them together " Josiah began, glancing at the lady's man as they reached the boardinghouse steps.
"Boom," Buck said coming to a dead stop as the door to Chris Larabee's room burst open and Vin barreled down the steps past them, his face livid.
"Stay the hell away from me, Tanner!" Chris shouted after the tracker as Vin made his way to the livery at the end of town. "You ever set foot in my sights again I'll draw you down. You hear me? Damn ignorant bastard!"
Tanner made no motion but to continue his way towards the livery, hat pulled down low over his eyes, rifle gripped at his side.
Buck and Josiah heard him bark orders to Yosemite to fetch Peso as he readied his saddle and bridle, disappearing into the darkness of the stables.
"Shit," Buck whispered as he stared at the figure of Chris Larabee who stood swaying at the top of the stairs, an empty whiskey bottle in his hand. Wilmington turned back to look towards the livery as he heard the hooves of Peso punishing the ground of the trail leading out of Four Corners in a dead run.
"Duck!" he heard Josiah shout. The preacher pulled Wilmington down out of the line of fire as the empty bottle sailed past his head, crashing on the ground in the wake of Tanner's exit.
Larabee shouted after the fleeing horseman one more time, an incoherent burst of rage, then swept back inside the boardinghouse ignoring the Regulators who stood transfixed at the foot of the stairs.
"Brother Buck?" Josiah said quietly. "I do believe the Lord himself would not enter that room right now."
"Damn straight, Josiah."
+ + + + + + +
It was not even noon before most of the town had heard of the confrontation between Larabee and Tanner. After all, it was a small town, and this was good gossip. And like any good gossip, the particulars of the fight had been altered so much between tellings that Buck and Josiah were having a hard time keeping the truth straight in their own heads.
Nathan had been assured that no blood was drawn -one account had Chris Larabee shooting Vin as he rode out of town.
J.D. had been assured - repeatedly - that Vin did not say he was leaving for good. Vin's wagon was still in town with all of his belongings.
Ezra alone had not heard of the altercation. He had risen at noon and was now making his way to his corner table in the saloon, surprised at finding Buck and Nathan already seated - and even more surprising - already drinking.
"To what do I owe the pleasure of your company so early in the day, gentleman?" Ezra asked as he took a seat between his friends and proceeded to break the seal on a new deck.
"It's 11 a.m., Ezra," Nathan answered drily.
"True. And albeit not an early hour in the natural order of the day, still an early hour for both of you to be imbibing as such," Ezra remarked, nodding toward the bottle of whiskey on the table.
"Chris and Vin had a fight," said Buck.
"Have the heavens fallen?" Ezra asked sarcastically. "I'd hardly deem that a reason for such melodrama. I myself have been witness to any number of occasions when "
"Vin left town," Nathan added.
"Will wonders never cease!" Ezra exclaimed again. "We all know how infrequently that happens."
"Chris told Vin he'd shoot him," said Buck.
"Gentlemen, please, you'll have to do better than this. I'd be harder pressed to name a day when Vin and Chris haven't fought, when Vin hasn't rode out of town, or when Chris hasn't threatened to shoot him. This air of foreboding in which you persist "
"Chris was drunk, Ez," Buck persisted.
Standish shuffled his cards, rolling his eyes lazily towards Wilmington.
"Alright," said Nathan. "So none of those things is anything new. But so far as I know, ain't none of them happened all at once in the way Buck and Josiah said. Chris and Vin fight, but usually over each other's well-bein', Vin leaves town, but not without Chris warnin' him to watch his back. Chris may threaten to shoot Vin, but we all know it's only to keep him from doin' somethin' foolhardy. He ain't never threatened to draw down on him before. And he sure ain't never called him an ignorant bastard."
Ezra stopped shuffling the cards and looked up at Nathan, then at Buck, the cocky smile dissolving from his lips.
"He said that?" Ezra asked Buck quietly.
"I ain't never seen him like that," Buck answered. "I seen him drunk, I seen him mad drunk and furious. But I ain't never seen him like that with Vin. I swear, Ez, when he threw that whiskey bottle after Vin "
Ezra looked at them both, aghast.
Buck shook his head.
"I don't even want to think " Buck started, then stopped abruptly, his eyes focusing beyond Ezra to the front doors of the saloon.
Larabee lurched unsteadily into the room and up to the bar. He slid a silver dollar across to Inez and nodded towards a bottle behind her.
"I think, maybe, you have had enough Mr. Larabee," Inez said quietly, her eyes pleading with Buck over the gunfighter's shoulder.
Buck rose quickly, crossing to Chris'side. He had seen enough to know Larabee wasn't thinking straight and he intended to shield Inez from the man's alcohol-fueled anger.
"Inez is right, Chris. That's it. You've had enough," Buck said, facing him down.
"That right? You takin' sides with that fool tracker?"
The air went out of Buck's lungs as if Chris had physically punched him in the stomach. He had never seen Chris like this, never in his life expected to hear him talk about Vin so cruelly. Hell, if Chris had heard anyone, including Buck, talk about Vin like that
"Time to sleep it off, Chris. Come on. I'll go with you," Buck stammered.
"You gonna answer me?" he challenged Buck.
"I'm on your side, Chris," Buck sputtered quickly. "Like always, pard, you know that. Let's you and me talk about old times over a hot meal."
Buck was relieved to see Chris begin to back down. The mention of a hot meal had appealed to him. It had been days since he had eaten anything solid and he realized now he was hungry.
"Alright. But not here. He's got friends here, I expect," Chris said, nodding towards the back table with distaste.
Ezra and Nathan watched as Buck threw a desperate glance back at them, then guided Chris towards the door.
"Good Lord," Ezra murmured as they watched the pair make their way unsteadily across the street. "What could possibly "
"I don't know, Ezra," Nathan answered him, shaking his head. "I sure as hell don't know. But it's up to us to find out. Very carefully."
+ + + + + + +
Vin rode with a fury born from years of betrayal, disappointment, and loss. The argument with Chris raced through his mind. He would never have believed he would have heard those words from Larabee. He knew Chris was drunk - knew he was hurting. But something had snapped in Vin as well and he had found himself saying things he never would have dreamed.
He raced Peso on at a dangerous speed. Vin, the man who treated his horse as well as his friends, urged his mount on with maniacal force until Peso, exhausted, stumbled and sent his rider sprawling onto the hard ground.
Vin lay unmoving as Peso scrambled laboriously to his feet, his huge barrel chest heaving, his coat lathered with sweat. Tanner listened to the horse sucking great gasps of air as he himself fought to control his breath.
Drinkin' yourself into a bottle over 'em. What kind of a man are you? Ain't a one of us don't know what you're thinkin' on when you do this. What does that do to their memory?
Shut up, Vin. Shut up before you say somethin' you can't take back. You don't know
I don't know what it's like to lose a wife, a son - I don't know what it's like to have folks, family, a place to call my own either. We can talk all day about what I don't know. But I do know I ain't never looked for any answers in a bottle.
Get out Vin Go on to Little Butte
Without you, right? 'Cause ain't no one but Vin Tanner dumb enough to take the word of a drunk
You said you was comin', Chris
Aw, hell, Tanner, it was just a day's ride! Quit actin' like it meant somethin' more than that. You're a grown man, damn it. Stop actin' like a kid
I wouldn't know how. This what you done to Buck? Got yourself so drunk he couldn't stand to be near you? To watch you drink Sarah and Adam into the ground - bury 'em again and again
Damn you, Vin!
There had been more. Not much more, but by that time he had been so angry he didn't think he'd ever remember his final words. For the life of him, he couldn't figure out what had set him off so hard. Chris was right. It was just a day's ride. Why had he let the anger consume him so completely?
He sat up slowly as his senses came back. He had been straining to see through a red haze as he had thundered out of town. Now his head cleared as he realized there was a dull, throbbing pain working its way up his left leg.
He raised guilty eyes to Peso who pawed the ground, eyeing him disdainfully as he munched cautiously on some prairie grass.
+ + + + + + +
By nightfall, Buck had coaxed Chris away from the bottle and onto hot food and coffee until the gunfighter had finally fallen into a sober and exhausted sleep. The others had watched the livery anxiously for a sign of Vin's return. J.D. had made several trips to Tanner's wagon to be sure nothing had been removed, although J.D. had to admit Vin kept little of value in the wagon and wasn't sure the tracker wouldn't think twice about leaving it behind.
Ezra had continued on in his usual fashion, attempting to glean bits of information from the townspeople who crossed his path, or from conversations on which he eavesdropped from his regular place at the gaming tables. But again, the gossip seemed to be flourishing and Buck and Josiah remained the sole reliable sources of information.
Mary had had a steady stream of townspeople in her door, looking for the most accurate rendition of what had occurred between the two friends, but she felt it beneath her to comment on what was so obviously a personal matter between Vin and Chris. She didn't allow it to stop her, however, from making discreet inquiries as to Chris' present state. She had seen him drunk before, too, but it saddened her deeply to think that his drinking had now affected his friendship with Vin Tanner.
It was just after dawn when J.D. looked up wearily from his seat outside the jail to see the welcome sight of Vin Tanner astride Peso, making his way toward the livery. He hesitated a moment, trying to decide who he should tell first, when he noticed Vin getting down off the wrong side of Peso, his left leg sliding awkwardly off the back of the horse. He ran for Nathan.
Before Vin could compose himself enough to attempt unsaddling Peso, Nathan and J.D. were at his side, the healer casting an appraising glance over his soon-to-be patient.
"I'm fine," Vin drawled, glancing at them.
"Yeah, J.D. saw how 'fine' you got off that horse," Nathan said, placing a hand on Vin's arm.
"I'll get that, Vin," J.D. offered as Vin attempted to loosen the cinch and remove the saddle.
"Thanks, J.D.," Vin sighed as he perched carefully on the side of the feed trough. He looked at the two men. "So you two the only ones still speakin' to me?"
Nathan shook his head, letting out a breath he hadn't realized he had been holding.
"Shit, Vin, what happened?" he asked.
"How's Chris?" Vin countered.
"Buck's got him sobered up, sleepin' it off," said Nathan. He didn't push for an answer to his first question, but asked instead, "How about you? What's hurtin' ya?"
Vin eased himself up placing weight on his left leg tentatively. He winced with pain as J.D. and Nathan each took up an arm, steadying the tracker.
"Let's get him to the clinic, J.D.," Nathan ordered as they pulled Vin's arms over their shoulders and made their way slowly into town.
+ + + + + + +
Buck watched from a chair in the corner of the room as Chris made his way blearily to the wash stand. Larabee gasped as he splashed the cold water against his face, then rubbed it raw with a towel. He squinted painfully into the mirror, seeing Buck's reflection behind him.
"You sober?" Buck asked not attempting to mask the irritation in his voice.
"What're you doin' here?" Chris asked.
"Starin' at a poor excuse for a friend," Buck answered.
"Like hell "
"You seen me drunk before. I'll get some breakfast and I'll be fine," Chris said as he put on a fresh shirt.
"Yeah, I seen you drunk. But just eatin' breakfast ain't gonna make it fine this time, Chris."
"What're you talkin' about?" Chris asked, irritated. His head was pounding and his mouth tasted like cotton. He wanted some hot coffee and eggs and made his way slowly to the door.
Chris stopped dead in his tracks. Vin. He was supposed to go with Vin to Little Butte. He'd gone to the cabin for some supplies. His kit blanket had been ripped and he was looking for an old one to use until he got to Little Butte to buy a new one. A tintype of Sarah had fallen out of the folds of the blanket and the next thing he knew he was riding into town to look for more whiskey, having run out at home.
Now he vaguely remembered seeing Vin. He was angry at Chris for being drunk when he wanted to leave they had had words.
"Guess he's upset, havin' to wait for me?" Chris asked.
"Hell, yeah, I guess you could say that. Although I think he's probably more upset that you threatened to kill him next time you saw him - among other things," Buck answered, recalling the hate-filled words Chris had used regarding the tracker.
Chris flashed a look of surprise at Buck, then his eyes narrowed as bits of conversation came back to him
This what you done to Buck? Got yourself so drunk he couldn't stand to be near you? To watch you drink Sarah and Adam into the ground - bury 'em again and again
"He crossed a line yesterday," Chris said, his jaw setting hard. "He had no right to say what he did."
"Just what did he say, Chris?" Buck asked, hoping once and for all to get to the truth behind the argument.
Chris looked at Buck, then reached for his gun belt, strapping it around his waist as he walked to the door.
"None of your business, Buck."
+ + + + + + +
"Well?" Vin asked as he gripped the edges of the cot. His eyes followed Nathan as the healer pulled and prodded the tracker's throbbing leg.
"Well it ain't broken," Nathan answered, "but you wrenched that left knee somethin' fierce. Gonna be hurtin' you for a while I expect, but there ain't much I can do for you 'cept tell you to take it easy -which you won't - so I ain't gonna waste my breath."
Nathan handed him a bottle of liniment.
"Might rub that into it when you get a chance. Won't heal it any faster but it'll take away the soreness for a bit."
"Thanks, Nate. Appreciate it."
Nathan looked down at Vin who sat unmoving on the cot. Vin placed the bottle down beside him carefully, then stared dejectedly into his empty hands.
"Vin?" Nathan asked quietly, "What got into you two?"
"I been figurin' on that since Peso bucked me," Vin answered truthfully. "And I just don't know what made me go off like that. Hell, I know I was angry at him for gettin' s'drunk again. But it ain't the first time he done it."
"That's a fact," Nathan nodded sorrowfully.
Vin looked sullenly around the clinic, then squinted up at Nathan.
"What's he sayin'?" he asked cautiously.
"I ain't heard a sober word outta him yet. Buck's been with 'im. Got 'im holed up 'til he's fit to walk the streets again I reckon," Nathan said.
"What'd Buck say about it?"
Nathan eyed him.
"You mean is he takin' Chris' side?" the healer asked pointedly.
Vin looked down again, ashamed.
"I reckon I prob'ly said some things I shouldn't," Vin admitted.
"Well, so far I ain't heard anything about what you said. So far the only one shootin' his mouth off in public was Chris. And I'd have to say you're too good a friend of mine -and his - for me to be repeatin' what he said in a dead drunk."
"I guess I best get it over with," Vin said rising unsteadily.
Nathan reached out a hand to support him.
"You sure you wanna do that now? Why not get yourself somethin' to eat first. Let things cool off a bit," Nathan suggested.
Vin rubbed a callused hand across the side of his face and glanced back at Nathan uncertainly.
"Well, maybe you're right. I ain't eaten since breakfast yesterday."
"You want a crutch to help you get around for a spell?" Nathan offered.
Vin shot him a sly smile as he hobbled towards the door.
"Thought you was gettin' smart about wastin' your breath?"
+ + + + + + +
"Our dear Mr. Jackson has elevated himself above the stratum of the mere mortal doctor, I see," said Ezra approaching Buck and Chris as they ate a late breakfast.
Buck threw a quizzical look toward the gambler.
"He has taken to raising the dead," Ezra explained as he nodded towards the sullen gunslinger.
"Shut up, Ezra," Chris growled without looking up.
"Unfortunately resurrection has not improved his social skills," Ezra murmured to Buck as he sat.
"Just keep it comin' Ezra," Buck warned the gambler. "He ain't shot no one yet today - you could be the first."
"I was under the impression Mr. Tanner was reserved for that honor."
"Hell, Ezra " Buck began, shaking his head.
"What the hell are you babblin' about Standish?" Chris challenged.
"Apparently Mr. Wilmington has neglected to refresh your memory on the contents of the verbal barrage in which you engaged Mr. Tanner yesterday morning."
"I remember it," Larabee shot back. "I remember he had it comin', too."
"Chris, come on," Buck said, anxious to diffuse the situation before it escalated into a repeat of the previous day's performance. He glared at Ezra.
"We're tryin' to forget yesterday's little battle, Ezra, not repeat it," Wilmington said with irritation.
"I was merely " he stopped when he saw Chris stiffen. Larabee's eyes turned hard and the bleary morning-after haze that had clouded them dissipated, revealing an icy stare that focused on the young man limping through the door.
"Shit," Ezra and Buck said at the same time as they saw Vin lock eyes with Chris.
The usual chatter of the room quieted abruptly as Chris rose to face the tracker and all eyes went to his hand as it rested automatically on the gun at his side. Vin moved cautiously, painfully, towards Chris, his eyes never leaving the gunman's. Tanner's jaw twitched and both Buck and Ezra found themselves holding their breaths.
Chris watched Vin approach, not moving a muscle since he had stood. Tanner reached the table and rested his hands gently on its surface. Buck cleared his throat nervously.
"What happened to you, Vin?" he asked cautiously, his eyes flitting back and forth between the two men. "You ok?"
Vin continued to stare at Chris.
"Fine," he answered.
"I presume you have confirmed that diagnosis with Mr. Jackson?"
Vin's concentration was broken as he shot a glance towards Ezra. Damn the man. Vin had made it a practice never to answer the gambler's questions without applying singular thought to what he had said in order to be sure he wasn't agreeing to something he'd regret.
Ezra smiled. The diversion had produced its desired effect. He took the opportunity to break the silence once again.
"Allow me to elucidate," he said casually. "Has Mr. Jackson evaluated your condition?"
Vin was still on 'elucidate' when Buck interrupted.
"Nate say you're ok?" Wilmington wasn't sure where Ezra was going with all this but he figured the longer the two of them kept talking the more time Chris and Vin would have to cool down before they started something again.
"Twisted m'knee," Vin answered. He looked back at Chris, glanced slowly at the gun hand, then back up to the cold green eyes.
"Well?" he asked, suddenly irritated at the show of force Larabee was playing out for him. "You gonna use it?" he said, nodding towards the gun.
"What the hell is that supposed to mean?" asked Chris.
"Your gun. You said you'd draw down on me next time I crossed your path. You gonna use it?" Vin challenged again.
"Aw crap," Buck murmured.
"I never said " Chris denied.
"The hell you didn't. Tell him Buck," Vin ordered.
"Stay outta this Wilmington," Chris spat.
"How'd you know what you said - you's so drunk " said Vin.
"I know you crossed a line," Chris accused.
"You broke your word," Vin countered.
"Gentlemen," Ezra said, rising.
Buck pulled him back down.
"You could see I was drunk, you know why " Chris argued.
"Damn, I'm tired of that excuse," Vin said, frustrated.
Chris threw his chair over and grabbed the front of Tanner's coat.
"You got some kind of death wish Tanner or are you just too dumb to understand " Chris shouted pushing him backwards.
Vin stumbled back on his left leg, the knee buckling under him. He bit his lip as a spasm of pain shot through his body. The grimace on his face brought Buck and Ezra to their feet.
"That's enough, Chris, can't ya see he's hurtin'?" Buck said as he pushed himself between the two men.
Ezra grabbed Vin's arm and guided him to a chair where Tanner fell hard into the seat.
"You got yourself a passel of friends it seems," Chris sneered.
"One less than I used to, I guess," Vin shot back, holding his throbbing knee.
"You got that right, Tanner. You can " Chris shouted again.
He was interrupted as J.D. came pounding through the doors and running to where the tracker sat perched on the edge of the chair as Larabee raged above him.
"Vin! Ya gotta come quick," he said anxiously, pulling at Tanner's arm.
"Easy, J.D." said Buck, grabbing him. "What's wrong?"
"It's Nettie, Vin," J.D. gasped, panting for breath. "She's at Nathan's."
Vin was up like a shot, the pain in his knee forgotten as he forced himself past Chris and the others, halfway to Nathan's before the door swung closed behind him.
+ + + + + + +
Buck, Ezra and J.D. burst into the clinic to find Vin perched on the edge of one of Nathan's cots, his eyes anxiously fixed on the still form of Nettie Wells as he held one of her hands in his own. Casey sat beside him, her head bowed, hair fallen in front of her face, brushing the tears from her eyes.
"What happened?" Buck asked as J.D. ran to the young girl's side.
Vin's voice caught in his throat. He brushed a hand across the lined forehead of the old woman.
"Nate says it's called a stroke," he answered numbly.
"Good heavens," whispered Ezra.
"What's that?" J.D. asked wide-eyed as he placed a comforting hand on Casey's shoulder.
"It's a kind of fit," Nathan tried to explain. "Usually affects one side or t'other. In Miss Nettie's case, it looks to be her right side."
"Affects how?" Buck asked.
"Like a paralysis," Nathan explained. "She can't move her right hand or leg. Can't talk or see plain."
"How long does it last?" J.D. wanted to know.
Nathan hesitated. Ezra looked knowingly at the healer and swallowed hard.
"I believe there have been some individuals who have recovered completely," he offered hopefully. Vin turned to look up at the gambler.
"What about the others?" Vin asked, searching Ezra and Nathan's faces for the truth, and cursing the answer he found there.
"It's all different, Vin," Nathan answered truthfully. "I ain't read much on it - I'll see if I can get more - but what I have read said it can be different with each person. Some people are fine, others get only a bit of use back in an arm or a leg, others "
"Don't get better at all," Vin finished hollowly.
"She ain't never give up on you Vin Tanner. Not so far's I recall, anyway. And you gotta admit you've given her more reason to than most. You givin' up on her already?" Nathan challenged him.
"How'd it happen?" Buck interrupted, his eyes on Casey.
Slowly the young girl lifted her head and J.D. saw for the first time that the right side of her face was bruised a dark purple.
"Casey, what happened?" he asked, shocked.
"They came outta nowhere," she said, trembling. "They just started shootin' and hollerin'."
"Who, Casey?" Buck asked gently.
"I don't know who they were. They started shoutin' at Aunt Nettie. She started hollerin' back at 'em to get off the place," Casey sobbed, stealing a fearful glance at the still form on the cot.
"I was beggin' her to stop. To just let 'em have their fun and go. But then one of 'em grabbed me, hit me, started to take a torch to the barn," she broke down crying and J.D. pulled her close.
"I think the shock just hit her so hard," said Nathan. "Somethin' like that can cause these strokes, I hear. Casey said Nettie fell to the ground, started convulsin' "
Vin closed his eyes, his knuckles white as he ground his fists into the woolen sheet on the bed.
"Must'a scared 'em. They run off, anyways. Casey got Nettie into the wagon somehow and brought her here," Nathan finished.
"You see where they went, Casey?" The small group was startled by the question as they looked up to see Chris filling the frame of the doorway.
The girl shook her head, unable to control the sobs that racked her small body as J.D. struggled to comfort her, holding back his own tears.
"Nate, you and Josiah see to Nettie. J.D., stay with Casey. Buck, Ezra, you're with us," Chris ordered.
Vin looked up at him.
"Or ain't you up to this?" Chris asked without expression.
"Try and stop me," Vin answered coldly.
+ + + + + + +
The four Regulators rode in silence to Nettie Well's humble spread outside of Four Corners. Their restless eyes scanned the horizon for the men Casey had described, but there had been no sign of the strangers.
Chris glanced over at Vin who rode hard, his face a dull mask of grief, his lips white in a tight grimace of pain as the jarring strides of Peso punished his knee. Larabee felt a wave of guilt overcome him as he watched the young man fight his warring emotions and the nagging pain.
How had he let things go this far, he wondered. He was drunk, yes, but he'd been drunk before. Hell, he and Vin and fought before, but not like this. A new thought lay like a pall over the fading anger of hours before. The thought of actually having lost a friendship he had valued so highly.
Words began to drift back into his memory, each one stabbing his conscience like one of Nathan's fine blades draw down, ignorant, bastard he hadn't really said that, had he? To Vin? He couldn't remember now, what he had said to Vin and what he had said to Buck, but quickly realized it didn't matter. He had destroyed a fragile framework of trust with Vin. And the thought - the sudden fear - he felt at that realization surprised him.
+ + + + + + +
"You're going to be fine, Nettie," Josiah said quietly as he held Nettie's hand. She had regained consciousness again a few minutes ago and struggled now with her inability to move and speak clearly. Her eyes were wide and filled with a fiery mixture of fear and frustration.
"Caassh," she stuttered out awkwardly as her eyes darted about the room.
"Casey's with J.D. She's fine," the preacher assured her.
Her eyes accused him of lying and he smiled shyly at her.
"Alright. She's scared. Physically, she's fine. Nathan took good care of her. But she's very worried about you, and upset about what happened, so J.D. is staying with her."
Nettie relaxed a bit and took a shuddering breath.
"Ssstohk," she lisped, swallowing hard.
Nathan was suddenly at her side, offering a sip of water.
"Yes, Nettie. A stroke," he confirmed as she drank. "I'm readin' up on 'em as fast as I can - got another book ordered by telegram. We're gonna see you through this now, so don't you worry."
Her lip trembled a bit, but she sucked in the left side and bit down hard on it as a steely resolve filled her tiny body. She blinked hard to release a tear from her eye and drew the left corner of her mouth into a tight line.
Josiah read her thoughts as clearly as the text of his old King James as he brushed the tear from her eye. He watched her thoughts move from despair at the thought of her homestead, to fear for Casey and herself, to revenge for what had been done to her, and then to
This time the word came out clean and clear as her eyes searched Josiah's for the answer she already knew.
"They rode out about an hour ago," Josiah answered. "They'll find out who those men were - where they went."
The preacher had hoped the answer would suffice, but knew by her unwavering gaze that she was still waiting for more.
"He's upset, Nettie," he shook his head, reprimanding her lightly. "You know better'n I do how much stock that boy puts by you."
"Chsss ith im?" she asked.
Josiah shot a glance at Nathan, one the old woman did not fail to catch.
"ahht?" she demanded.
"Chris is with him, Nettie," Nathan assured her.
"aaahhht?" she demanded again, her eyes flashing as her left hand reached out to grab Josiah's arm in a surprisingly strong grip.
"They've been sparrin' is all, Nettie," Josiah said, resting a hand on her shoulder. "Soon as they both heard what happened they rode out to your place together with Buck and Ezra. They've just been shootin' their mouths off again, that's all."
Josiah almost gasped at the clear accusation that lay in the eyes of the old woman. Nathan had seen it, too, and knew stroke or no stroke, Nettie Wells was a force to be reckoned with.
"There were hard words this time, Nettie," Nathan said resignedly. He hadn't planned on bringing this matter up in her present condition, but knew Nettie well enough to realize she would not rest until she had the truth. The frustration of being trapped in bed while others took care of business for her would be detrimental enough to her healing. Worrying on Vin would be too much.
"Chris was drunk. They fought. We don't know ourselves what happened for sure. But you know both of 'em well enough to know when they get riled "
Nettie took Josiah's hand up in her own, her eyes pleading with him.
"oouu elf," she said.
Josiah shook his head.
"I'm sorry, Nettie, I don't "
She pointed a finger at him.
"oouuu elf im," she said again, pleading.
Realization dawned on the preacher and he smiled.
"I'll help him, Nettie, don't you worry. The good Lord and I will be keepin' an eye on him for you until you're back on the job yourself."
He rose slowly and patted her hand.
"I only hope the two of us can do you justice. Takin' care of Vin is a pretty big job. I know the Lord'll be lookin' to the day when you can relieve him of the burden again."
Nettie gave him a glare.
"Nettie Wells you could preach a sermon with those eyes alone."
+ + + + + + +
The four Regulators reined up outside of Nettie Wells' homestead, their eyes scanning the damage that had been done. The barn was gone, a pile of blackened timber and ashes. A good portion of her fencing had been torn down, many of her crops trampled. The house had been scorched from the heat of the barn - or maybe from the flames of torches that had failed to catch on the siding - but it was still standing. Her chickens had scattered and were wandering aimlessly about the front yard, her two cows stood grazing in the back. At least the horses were safe in town, Casey having used them to drive the buckboard to Nathan's.
"Damn," Buck cursed as he surveyed the ruins. "Who the hell'd do somethin' like this?"
Ezra dismounted and began walking carefully through the debris picking up pieces of harness, farming tools, whatever he could salvage, and placing them aside carefully.
Buck followed suite, helping with the remains of the barn and fencing while Chris and Vin sat astride their mounts outside the battered picket fence that stood before the house.
Chris watched Vin carefully, waiting for a cue from the tracker as to the next course of action. Slowly Vin kicked his left stirrup free and laboriously inched his leg across the back of Peso.
"Wait," Chris said, dismounting, and walking over to him.
"What?" Vin asked hotly.
Chris bit his tongue to keep from telling him to forget it, and instead offered a hand up to help him down.
Vin looked down at the proffered hand. His mind was whirling with emotions from his rekindled anger at Chris to his fear and frustration at what had happened to Nettie, but he thought clearly enough to realize his leg would not bear the strain of dismounting after the tortuous ride.
He slid down awkwardly, allowing Chris to take the burden of his weight until he could put both feet on the ground.
Vin's face was coated with a sheen of sweat from the pain and he gasped as he tried to take a step, clutching tightly to Peso's mane. He glanced at Chris, his jaw already grinding as he awaited the reproach for riding out to Nettie's with a knee as bad as this - but it didn't come. Chris wasn't even looking at him. He had made sure Vin was steady on his feet, then moved off towards the house, inspecting the charred siding.
Vin moved slowly from Peso to the gatepost, inching along as he worked some movement back into his stiff knee.
"Four - five - maybe even six of 'em," Buck called from the barn. "Who are these guys?"
"And what reason would they have to visit such violence upon Miss Wells?" Ezra asked.
"That's what we're here to find out," Chris called back.
Buck and Ezra watched as Vin inched his way about the front yard. They glanced at each other, shaking their heads. Bad enough they were facing a malicious gang of unknowns, they had to be doing it at less than full strength while Chris and Vin continued their battle of unspoken words.
Vin hobbled over to the side of the house where Nettie's rifle lay in the grass. He knelt slowly down onto his right knee, his left leg splayed painfully out to the side. His hands brushed the rifle with his right hand, then settled on the stock. This was where she had stood against them, and this was where she had fallen. He entwined the fingers of his left hand in the grass, gripping it, tearing it out with his fist. He took the rifle in both hands and raised it, using it as a cane to stand again.
"Vin?" Buck asked quietly.
Tanner jumped, not realizing Wilmington was at his side.
"Sorry, pard," Buck apologized, unnerved at the sight of a Vin Tanner so tightly wound he hadn't heard his approach.
"How many, you figure?" Buck asked him.
"How many?" Vin asked, puzzled, his eyes still focused on the ground at his feet.
"How many men? It's a mess by the barn. I can't tell if it's four or six," Buck explained.
"Can you ascertain in which direction they fled?" Ezra asked as he approached the pair.
Vin finally looked up at them both, staring at them as if they were strangers.
"Vin?" Ezra asked this time, venturing to place a tentative hand on his shoulder.
"What've you got?" Chris called from the house. He was closing the door behind him, satisfied that nothing had been taken from Nettie's home.
Ezra and Buck watched as the haunted confusion left Vin's eyes, replaced by clear purpose as Chris' voice cut through the quiet. Vin looked carefully at the ground before him again, then scanned the homestead with eagle's eyes.
"Trail'll be pretty cold already," he said. "I figure six men did this," he indicated grimly as he pointed about the place. "But there were three, maybe four, who stood by.
"Shit, Vin, ten men ridin' together out here? Why?" Buck asked astounded.
Vin looked at Chris and the shock of realization hit him that Larabee could still read his thoughts - even in the midst of the black anger that lay between them.
"Cattlemen," Larabee said as Vin nodded in agreement.
"No one around here looking to add Nettie's place on anymore. Not since we rode Royal out. You reckon it's someone new?" Buck asked.
"Always someone new," Tanner said with disgust. "Always someone wantin' what someone else already has. Ain't no room out here no more."
"Pretty damn bold, though," Chris said, ignoring Tanner's diatribe.
"We would be wise, then, to proceed with caution," Ezra recommended.
"Ain't gonna cover much ground ridin' together," Chris said thoughtfully. "Best we split up in four directions, see if anyone else's been havin' trouble."
"Or not," Ezra muttered as he saw Buck and Vin nod in agreement.
"Meet back at Four Corners by dark. Anyone sees anythin' they just come back to town. We make a plan from there," Chris ordered as he eyed Vin. "Ain't gonna be no call for anyone ridin' out against 'em alone."
Vin met Chris' gaze evenly.
"Sounds good, Chris," Buck said quickly. "I'll head out east. Ez, you go back south and ride through town, check on Nettie and Casey, see if J.D. has anythin' wired in - unless you wanna ride back through town, Vin, check on Nettie yourself," Buck said suddenly.
"I'll go north," Vin said.
"What the hell sense does that make?" Chris asked, irritated. "Chances are good they came from up north. What're you gonna do with that bum knee all by yourself?"
"I thought no one was supposed to do anythin' by themselves?" Vin challenged. "We're just trackin', right? Ain't that what I been told?"
"Gentlemen, gentlemen," Ezra said parting the two. "It's late in the day already. Might I suggest we make our departure before the day is wasted?"
Vin broke from the standoff first, turning back towards Peso, cursing softly as his knee buckled unceremoniously beneath him. He kept from falling by clutching to Nettie's rifle.
"Damn stubborn tracker," Chris muttered as he grasped Vin firmly by the forearm, guiding him to Peso.
"I kin do it myself," Vin snapped back.
"You know," Buck murmured to Ezra as they avoided the two warring Regulators and made their way to their own horses, "Now I'm startin' to get pissed."
"I quite agree, Mr. Wilmington. It is obvious they are each still harboring ill feelings from their recent dispute - the particulars of which we remain unaware - yet their history of perpetual banter prevents us from ascertaining the exact level of agitation."
Buck stared at Ezra with mounting irritation at Chris, at Vin, and at having been thrown into this temporary alliance with a walking dictionary.
"Yeah," he muttered.
+ + + + + + +
The sun had set an hour ago. Buck and Chris sat idly in the saloon sharing a bottle of whisky when J.D. strode in and slumped into the chair by Buck.
"Casey settled in?" Buck asked J.D. as he poured himself a shot.
"Yeah. She's still pretty shook up, though, worried about Nettie," J.D. answered glumly.
"Hell, boy, we're all worried about Nettie. She's a grand old lady. But she's tough, too," he said, punching J.D. lightly on the shoulder. "She'll fight her way outta this. You seen how determined she can be about healin'. You know how fiesty she gets whenever Vin " He stopped abruptly and cleared his throat. "Well, you know how fiesty she gets," he finished lamely.
J.D. looked from Buck to Chris. Larabee sat nursing his whisky, making no indication that he had heard Buck's comment.
"Ezra back yet?" J.D. asked, changing the subject.
"Gettin' somethin' to eat," Buck answered.
Silence fell heavily on the table as the unspoken question lay between them.
Buck cleared his throat again, poured himself and J.D. another shot. J.D. picked up the glass but swirled the liquid against the mute glow of the flickering lamplight before setting it back on the table before him. He glanced out the door, then back at Buck.
"Anyone seen 'im?" Chris asked, absently raking a hand across the growth of beard on his chin.
"Not yet," J.D. answered cautiously, then offered, "You could check his wagon, though, if you've a mind. I ain't looked there lately."
Chris sniffed and downed the rest of his shot.
"I ain't his ma," he answered, pouring himself another.
Buck cleared his throat again.
"You got somethin' stuck in your craw, Buck?" Chris asked coldly, his eyes focused on the bottle and glass before him.
"Well, hell, Chris I can't think what unless it's all this shit I've been havin' to swallow lately around you," Buck answered, exasperated. "You don't want to tell me what's goin' on between you and Vin, fine, it's your business. But I'm sick to death of walkin' on eggs around you two while we should be concentratin' on figurin' out who these guys are that attacked Nettie. Not to mention you sittin' there pretendin' not to worry about him when your stubborn pride is all there is holdin' ya in that chair right now 'stead of ridin' up north to check on 'im."
"I told him to come back to town. If he's too ignorant to follow my advice "
"Damn it, Chris, feud or no feud that's the last time I listen to you call him that," Buck said rising. "What's got into you? Was a time you'd shoot any man called that boy ignorant. Ya know how hard he takes it. What could he'a said that was so blame awful you go and pick the two words in the world that could cut him to the quick?"
Josiah appeared at the doors of the saloon as the two friends eyed each other with fury.
"Vin's come in," he said simply, curious and saddened at the sight of two more friends in the clutches of an obvious disagreement.
J.D. jumped up, happy for the interruption, and raced to follow Josiah as he headed towards the livery. He knew Vin would be worn out from the ride and he'd be happy to be able to help unsaddle Peso and bed him down for his friend.
"Let me know if he found anything," Chris said as Buck turned to leave as well.
"I ain't your errand boy, Larabee," Buck said. "You got a question for Vin, you ask him yourself."
+ + + + + + +
Vin rode exhausted into the livery and found himself unable to even think of how to get down off his horse - of what muscles would need to move to get him to the ground. He couldn't feel his left foot in the stirrup, his knee had become so swollen the circulation was nearly cut off in his lower leg.
God, he was tired. Tired of riding, tired of looking for sign, tired of worrying about Nettie, tired of fighting with Chris, tired of feeling so alone again.
"Let me help you, brother," Josiah said, having watched Vin sit unmoving in the saddle for almost a minute.
"I'll take care of Peso, Vin," J.D. offered, coming in behind the preacher.
"Much obliged," Vin sighed.
Josiah gently pulled Vin's leg free from the stirrup, then went to the other side of Peso and drew Vin off the horse, supporting his weight completely as Vin slipped his right foot out of the stirrup. Sanchez laid his burden gently down onto a barrel of oats as J.D. began unsaddling Peso.
"Can I help you to the wagon?" Josiah asked. Vin winced when the feeling began to return to his foot on waves of pins and needles as the dull throbbing of his knee became sharp and painful.
"Can ya help me to Nathan's, Josiah? I'd like to check on Nettie first," Vin asked shyly.
Though Josiah would've preferred to see Vin to bed with a glass of whisky in his hand and a bottle of liniment soaking on his knee, he appreciated the concern Vin had for Nettie, and the difficulty the young man had had in asking for any help at all.
"Of course, Vin," Josiah agreed, helping the tracker to his feet.
"Thanks again, J.D.," Vin called back over his shoulder to the young man who was busy brushing down Peso.
Vin and Josiah hobbled slowly over to the clinic. The preacher felt more and more of Vin's weight shifting towards him as the fatigue set in, while the weight of Nettie Wells' request burdened his conscience as well.
"Vin," he began cautiously as they walked. "You know Chris didn't mean the things he said. It was the liquor talking."
Tanner looked up at the preacher guardedly.
"Best stay out of it, Josiah," he said, looking away again.
"Can't," Josiah said. "Gave Nettie my word."
"You give her your word about what? Messin' in my business?"
"No, that I'd look out for you until she was on her feet again," Josiah answered calmly.
"That old woman keeps forgettin' my ma passed on years ago," Vin said.
"She ain't your ma, she's trying to be your friend," Josiah said, stopping in the middle of the street. "Mighty fine thing to have the care of a good woman like that."
"She could'a died today Josiah," Vin said quietly. He looked up at the preacher. "I reckon I've made a few too many mistakes lately startin' to count on things. Countin' on things other than yourself only gets you disappointed. I started to forget that. Good thing I got people around lately to remind me."
"He was drunk, Vin," Josiah said again as they resumed walking.
"Yeah, well, that seems to be somethin' I can count on lately."
Vin and Josiah entered the darkened room. Nathan nodded towards them from his desk.
"She awake?" Vin asked quietly as Josiah helped him to a seat near Nettie's cot.
"Slips in and out," Nathan answered.
"Vin?" came a quiet voice beside him.
Vin Tanner looked down at Nettie and smiled, resting his hand gently against the side of her face.
"How you doin' old woman?" he asked, gently chiding her.
She gripped his hand fiercely and trained a steely eye on him.
"Don't - sass - boy," she said carefully, reprimanding him.
"Well, hey now, that came out pretty good, Nettie," Nathan said laughing from his desk. "Maybe we better keep Vin around here permanent. Yellin' at him'll give you plenty of practice spittin' words out."
Vin laughed lightly, then grimaced as he tried to straighten his leg out.
"ohw bad?" Nettie asked, searching his eyes intently.
"I'm fine, don't you worry," Vin answered her, patting her hand.
"aaythen?" Nettie called.
"Damn, woman, I done told you I'm fine," Vin said, shaking his head in exasperation.
"Don't - swear - boy," Nettie admonished him.
Vin laughed again.
"What're you gonna do, Nettie, turn me over your knee?"
Vin started to laugh again, but stopped as he saw her right hand move slowly into a weak fist.
"Nate! Nate - you see this?" he asked excitedly, pointing to her hand.
Nathan smiled slyly, cocking a lazy eye over to where Vin was pointing.
"Oh, yeah, I seen it," he said nonchalantly.
"What'ya mean you seen it? Why didn't you say nothin'? It's comin' back to her, ain't it!" Vin sputtered.
"Now hold on, Vin," Nathan said, rising to join them, joking aside. "Yeah, I seen it. And it's good. But we got a long way to go. We gotta take it one day at a time."
"Yeah, yeah, I know," Vin said. "But that's real good, right?"
Nathan and Josiah glanced at each other, smiling at the boyish enthusiasm the tracker was displaying at this first hint of Nettie's recovery.
"It's real good, Vin," Nathan confirmed, resting a hand on Vin's shoulder.
"ehn ou two onna et dis boy in bed?" Nettie demanded as the three grinned down at her.
"I'm goin', I'm goin', Nettie," Vin said. He placed a soft kiss on her forehead. "You rest easy now. I'll see ya in the mornin'," he promised.
"oou see to 'usiness," she ordered him. "I'm fffiinne," she slurred with a hard stare as the corner of her mouth drew up in a sly smile.
+ + + + + + +
Buck met Vin as he made his way slowly from Nathan's with a fresh bottle of liniment in his hand. Josiah had insisted on helping him but Vin had declined the offer as the feeling began to return to his leg and Nettie's good news gave him renewed strength.
"Shit, Vin, you look like hell," Buck swore as he took the bottle from Vin and draped Vin's arm over his own shoulders.
"Nettie kin move her hand, Buck," Vin said, ignoring the comment.
"That's great, Vin," Buck said as he began to steer Vin towards his wagon.
"Whoa, whoa," Vin said, pulling away from him. "Where is he? I gotta report in."
"He can come to you," Buck said bitterly. "You ain't goin' nowhere but to bed right now."
"I don't need you coverin' for me, Buck. Can handle this myself," Vin argued.
"Fine," Buck said angrily, shrugging himself out from under Vin's arm and tossing the bottle back to him.
Vin swung crazily at the loss of support, grabbing for the bottle and landing hard on the ground with a painful grunt.
"Snarlin' and swipin' at each other like a couple of bobcats with us caught in the middle. The day I find myself countin' on Ezra for a bottle and a laugh is the day I stop playin' this damn fool game."
Vin watched as Buck strode off angrily into the night, then he made his way slowly and painfully to the saloon.
Chris watched as Vin struggled in through the doors of the saloon. Tanner kept his eyes trained on the gunslinger as he slumped into a chair at the table. Chris poured a drink and passed it over to Vin.
Tanner took the drink and stared at it.
"Nettie's comin' along good," he said as Chris poured himself another.
"Glad to hear it," Chris said. "She's a good woman."
The silence was awkward between them.
"Tarrington," Vin said, breaking it. "Cal Tarrington. Least that's the name I been hearin' most. Come down from up north lookin' for more pastureland. Don't look like they got a regular camp, just movin' around, testin' the waters."
"Yeah," Chris drawled as he drained another glass. "That's what I got, too. Got him a good number of men on the payroll doin' some scoutin' for 'im. Two other ranches west of Nettie's were hit. Same thing. Just enough damage to scare 'em, but no blood drawn. They're playin' this real tight. We'll need to talk it over with the others in the morning."
Vin shook his head in disgust.
"No blood drawn but they beat on a little girl and send an old woman to her bed. Now that sure takes a lot of grit, don't it?"
"You gonna be alright on this? You go off half-cocked lookin' for revenge and we got us a heap more trouble," Chris warned, pouring the last of the whisky.
"Yeah," Vin said, bristling at the reprimand. "I reckon even an ignorant bastard like me can figure that out. Reckon'd help if you stayed sober, too."
Chris froze with the drink to his lips. He watched Vin push himself away from the table without another glance at the gunslinger, then walk, shoulders slumped, leg stiff, out into the night.
+ + + + + + +
"If they follow through the way they been goin', they should hit Bob Carter next," Chris reasoned the next day as the seven sat in the jail discussing Cal Tarrington and his men.
"So we go to Carter's and wait," said J.D. simply.
"If that's the way they head, it's good figurin'," said Buck. He nodded at Chris. He noticed the situation had not improved between Chris and Vin overnight. As for their own argument, Buck had never been one to hold much of a grudge, especially where Chris was concerned.
"I'd feel a lot better if someone had seen them around the place," Chris said, second-guessing himself. "Hate to have all of us waitin' for a fight there while folks go unprotected someplace else."
"Since omnipresence is beyond our meager abilities, I for one am willing to cast my lot with Mr. Larabee," Ezra offered. He looked pointedly at Vin who had remained silent throughout the morning meeting. "That is, of course, dependent upon Mr. Tanner's acumen in discerning our findings of yesterday?"
Vin looked at the gambler, his eyes betraying confusion at the question, nervousness at having been put on the spot.
"Do you concur with Mr. Larabee?" Ezra rephrased the question. "I have found it advisable to consult with you both, each having your own areas of expertise, before proceeding in matters of the public welfare. Especially where the safety of my own person is involved," he added drily.
Vin shifted uneasily in his chair.
"What Ez is sayin', Vin, is Chris may call the shots, but we all got a healthy respect for your opinion and would feel a hell of a lot better about goin' into this brawl knowin' you was both on the same side," Buck explained. He was determined to end the feud before they faced this new danger. "I'd sure hate to lose a man because we're not all pullin' the wagon in the same direction."
Tanner straightened in his chair, taking in each man until his eyes rested on Chris Larabee. He was growing weary of the tension between them himself, and was loath to enter a battle without the certainty of Chris Larabee's gun protecting his back.
"I reckon we're all lookin' to ride Tarrington outta here - and to get some satisfaction for Nettie and Casey," he said evenly. "I ain't gonna do nothin' that'll keep us from gettin' that done. I figure what Chris has in mind is the best chance we got."
He nodded at Chris, an invitation to truce. The gunfighter held Vin's gaze evenly.
"We're agreed then. We'll head off to Carter's place," Chris said.
"One thing," Vin said suddenly, shyly. "Maybe I ain't thinkin' clear, maybe it ain't right to ask. I'll hold by what ya'll say on it."
"What, Vin?" Buck asked.
"I'd feel a hell of a lot better about all this if Nate and Josiah stayed here with Nettie and Casey. But I know I'm takin' this personal " he let the sentence fade out, ducking his head with a guilty glance up at Larabee.
"I think we'd all feel better," Chris agreed with a nod. "That o.k. with you two?"
"Can't say as I like stayin' behind," Nate said. "Feel like my duty is with ya'll."
"Same here," said Josiah.
"It'd be a load off our minds, knowin' they was looked after," Chris urged again.
"We'll stay with 'em, Chris, sure," Nathan relented, nodding in agreement with Josiah. "I'll probably have my hands full with all ya'll after it's over," he added glumly.
Vin looked at Nathan, swallowing hard.
"Thanks, Nathan. I'm much obliged," he said, then turned to Chris, offering his unspoken thanks to the gunfighter for his support.
Buck took a deep breath. The first tentative steps toward peace had been taken. He didn't allow himself to believe it was over, but the crushing weight he had felt at the idea of facing Tarrington with a house divided was gone. Now, he believed, the fight was theirs to win.
"Let's ride, boys," he said with a grin.
+ + + + + + +
" You goin'?" Nettie asked slowly as she woke to find Vin sitting quietly at her bedside. He smiled shyly at her.
"You're soundin' better every day, Nettie," he said, then answered her, "In a bit. Just came by to say good morning," he said her, squeezing her hand gently.
"You talk to Chris?" she asked pointedly, her eyes burning into his with determination and concern.
Vin looked away, rubbing his chin.
"We're talkin' enough to get this done," he said evasively. Vin felt her strong grip on his arm. Her left hand reached up and turned his face back to hers and she leveled a fiery gaze at him.
"Don't you be stubborn," she said evenly. She saw a flash of defiance in his blue eyes, a spark of anger at the insults he had borne from Larabee.
"Both did too much talkin'," she added, heading off the argument.
Vin sighed, defeated before he had begun. He nodded in agreement.
"I know," he said finally, then rose to leave after kissing her gently. "I gotta go, Nettie. I'll see you soon," he promised.
"See that you do," she said, softening at the thought of the danger he was riding into. "Ask Chris to stop?" she added quickly.
He nodded to her as he slipped from the room as quietly as he had come.
+ + + + + + +
Four men rode northwest out of Four Corners with grim determination. Each prepared for battle differently - Buck thought past the conflict and on to the celebration following a successful fight; Ezra put on a poker face to cover the gnawing anxiety he felt whenever he rode with these men - that he would prove equal to the fight. Vin usually steeled himself for battle with the thought of what needed to be done to protect the lives of the town and the rest of the seven, but this time revenge burned hotly within him despite Chris' earlier warning. And Chris Larabee - he rode as he always did with a vision of the job to be done and the confidence in the gun he'd use to do it. J.D. had stayed behind with Josiah and Nathan to help protect the town and to watch over Nettie and Casey. It had been a battle to convince him, but he had finally agreed that Josiah and Nathan alone stood no chance if the gang headed towards Four Corners.
Chris watched Vin carefully as they rode. Nathan had wrapped Vin's knee to allow for the maximum movement while giving it support in the saddle and for whatever else he would need mobility for in the conflict ahead.
Larabee had made a fragile peace with Vin in town, but he knew more would need to be said to repair the damage they had done to their friendship. The words of Nettie Wells rang in his head as he rode.
"Blame lies with you both for lettin' it get this far," she had said to him.
"He crossed a line," Chris said, although he felt less conviction in those words than when he had said them to Buck.
"He tell the truth?" she answered back.
He bristled at the woman's bold accusation but could not deny it. His silence answered her.
"I hear you used some pretty strong language against him," she continued. "Boy's carryin' scars from birth - don't need his friends layin' 'em bare."
Chris nodded tersely at the reprimand.
"Don't matter none who started it - you end it," she said finally.
Chris rose to leave, allowing her the faintest of grins.
"Reckon it's no wonder you got the use of that tongue back before anythin' else," he said as he pulled the door closed behind him on her response.
Now he rode with Vin at his side, his mind filled with Nettie's words and the thoughts of the fight that lay ahead. The gunfighter was so deep in thought he was the last to notice what the others had seen as they crested the hill before Bob Carter's homestead. They spurred their horses on the last half mile as the details of the charred home and barn became clearer - until the site of Bob and Martha Carter kneeling before the ruin revealed the lifeless form of their son between them.
Bob turned on them with his rifle, his eyes blurred with tears of rage. They drew up short, and Bob dropped the gun as recognition dawned. He staggered to them, his voice broken with anguished sobs.
"Killed him. Damn them all! There were nine of 'em. They killed him! He was just trying to protect his mother," the man screamed at them.
The four were speechless, the realization that they had been too late, and that this time it was murder, left them cold.
"Blood drawn," Vin rasped through clenched teeth.
"Which way?" Chris asked, ignoring him. "How long?"
"Toward Hatcher's," he said, pointing west. "An hour at most."
There was nothing to say, nothing that would ease the sorrow of this family, and only one thing to do. They headed west.
+ + + + + + +
They rode the rest of the day until Dan Hatcher's humble spread appeared in the distance with night approaching. Each of the Regulators held his breath, dreading what they would find. There had been no sign of Tarrington or his men on the road west and they feared the worst.
But as the four drew near to the homestead they saw with relief that all appeared well. Dan was sitting on the front porch with his wife Ellen, taking in the evening sunset. He stood cautiously as the men approached, a look of concern spreading across his rough features as he discerned their identities.
"Gentlemen?" he said as they approached. "What brings you so far west this late?"
Chris and Buck dismounted while Ezra pulled his horse up alongside Vin who was easing his leg carefully out of the stirrup, painfully flexing the swollen knee.
"Anyone come by here lately? Strangers?" Chris asked.
"Ain't seen no one all day but you boys," Hatcher answered. "What's goin' on?"
"We're havin' trouble with a greedy cattle baron name of Tarrington," Buck answered. "Some of his boys made trouble out at Nettie Wells' place. We just come from Bob Carter's - they killed his boy."
"Oh, Lord, no," Ellen Hatcher cried, covering her face with her hands. "Poor Martha, oh Dan "
"Bob said they were headed this way. We were about an hour behind 'em," Buck said, steeling himself against the memory of the young boy dead in his parents' arms.
"I ain't seen nothin'," Hatcher said, visibly shaken. "But there's a river two miles down -maybe they stopped there for the night?"
Chris looked back at Vin for confirmation. The tracker's face was white with pain, and he listed hard to the right, leaning heavily on the saddle horn. The faintest twinge of fear pricked Larabee's conscience as he realized they were going into a tough fight without Tanner at his best. Vin looked up and caught his glance. He tried to sit taller in the saddle, biting on his lip as the pain flared up his side.
"I'm thinkin' we'd all feel a whole lot better if we spent the night here," Chris said, receiving a nod of affirmation from the others.
"I'm thinkin' I would too," Hatcher said with great relief.
"Buck, Ez, let's get these horses in the barn, outta sight," Chris ordered. Buck took the reins of his own horse and Chris' as Ezra dismounted and moved toward Vin.
"Might I be of assistance?" he asked Vin, offering a hand up to the tracker.
Vin nodded curtly and allowed the gambler to help him off his horse. He took his rifle from the scabbard and stood unsteadily as Ezra moved off with their horses. Vin looked at the ground between where he stood and the door to the Hatcher's home. He glanced guiltily at Chris, painfully aware he had reached his limit and would not be able to walk it alone.
"We'll join you in a minute, Dan," Chris said as Hatcher motioned them into his house along with his wife.
Chris walked over to Vin, his eyes locked with the tracker's as he spoke softly.
"We're in deep shit, you know that, don't you?" he asked. "Nine guns against us and you're barely movin'."
Vin said nothing, knowing how much the four had come to depend on his rifle and his ability to move about deftly during the fight.
"What'ya want to do, Chris?" Vin asked, not challenging, realizing if they were going to survive this battle they would need to work together.
"We'll plan our positions tonight, figure they ain't comin' until mornin', and hope to hell we don't miss 'em altogether," Chris answered.
"They've been movin' right on down the line so far," Vin reasoned, wiping his hatband with a kerchief, then mopping the sweat from his forehead before replacing the hat on his head.
Chris watched the slow, deliberate action, his eyes hard on Tanner.
"How bad?" he asked directly.
This was no time for bravado, no time for his casual reply of being 'fine.' This question demanded the truth.
"Gonna have to figure good and place me well, Chris," Vin admitted, meeting his eyes. "I reckon by mornin' the only use I'll be is from my gun arm on up."
Chris swallowed hard at the tracker's honesty. He glanced down at the knee, noticing for the first time that Tanner had slit his pant leg to allow room for the grotesquely swollen joint.
"Maybe Ellen'll have somethin' to help," Chris offered sympathetically.
"Prob'ly not," Vin guessed, "but I'm hopin' good ol' Dan does," he said with the familiar spark in his eyes accompanied by the long-absent lopsided grin.
"Got a plan Chris?" Buck asked as he and Ezra came up behind them.
"Gonna go in now and work on it," Chris answered, turning towards the house.
"Give ya a hand, Vin?" Buck offered, coming alongside Vin.
"I got 'im," Chris answered. Vin and Chris exchanged glances as the gunfighter slipped an arm around Vin's waist and led him carefully to the house.
Buck followed behind, winking at Ezra.
"See?" Buck said quietly as Vin and Chris disappeared inside the house. "Told ya everythin'd work out fine."
"There are nine armed gunmen lurking in the night intent on separating us from the land of the living, our sharpshooter is woefully disabled, and you perceive our situation optimistically because those two are speaking?" asked Ezra, incredulously.
"Ez," said Buck, placing a hand on the gambler's shoulder as they stepped onto the porch, "If those two are speaking and able to draw lead I'll face the devil himself."
+ + + + + + +
Morning dawned with a dense fog. The call of Whippoorwills echoed in the valley while a red sun fought to burn its way through leaden skies. The trees were still sentinels in the mist and the ground was covered in a blanket of heavy dew.
A horse whinnied and snuffed within the Hatcher barn and the light cackle of chickens came from the coop behind the house.
Chris Larabee sat motionless just inside the front door of Dan Hatcher's home. Ellen Hatcher was secured in the root cellar with her father's loaded Remington across her lap and Dan standing guard outside the door.
Larabee felt them before he saw them. Felt the familiar evil spreading through the valley, displacing the serenity of dawn. Then on the horizon came the bobbing figures on horseback draped in heavy cattlemen's coats, rifles cradled in arms, hands resting on silvered Colts.
Dan Hatcher stiffened as he saw the gunman at the window carefully put out his cheroot and methodically check the chambers of his guns. Larabee nodded to the farmer in grim silence.
"I, I ain't I don't havin' men put their lives on the line for my place," Dan whispered, shaking his head.
"We're hired to protect our town and the people who do their business there," Chris said matter-of-factly. "This place is our responsibility just as if it were in the middle of Four Corners."
"Yeah," Dan agreed, "But I ain't gonna feel the same seein' your blood on my own front porch as I have seein' it in the streets of Four Corners."
Larabee smiled humorlessly.
"Well, then, I'll do my best to oblige," he said.
Tarrington and his men stopped a few yards outside Hatcher's picket fence.
"Hatcher!" he shouted. "Dan Hatcher!"
Dan jumped at the sound, but Chris motioned him back. He stood slowly and deliberately.
"You stay inside," he ordered Dan with authority. "You start to gettin' the feelin' you should be out there with us, you remember Ellen sittin' in the cellar countin' on ya as her last line of defense."
Hatcher swallowed hard as he glanced at the cellar door. He nodded soberly at the gunfighter and set his jaw as he cocked the rifle in his hands.
Larabee nodded his approval, turned, and opened the door.
+ + + + + + +
Nathan sat in his clinic working with Nettie to strengthen her hand and arm. He had gotten to know the woman better than ever before in their daily therapy sessions and realized quickly how easily it had become for Vin to feel protective of her. He liked the feisty woman and was impressed with her determination to heal.
The door to the clinic opened and both Nettie and Nathan blanched as they saw the look on J.D.'s face as he entered.
"Just got word," he said, swallowing hard and wiping a hand across his eyes. "They hit Bob Carter's place."
"Lord, no," Nettie said, dreading the news to come which had shaken the boy so badly.
"Their son, Tom, they " J.D. began, but could not finish. His eyes, filled with despair, told them the rest.
"He was just a kid!" Nathan said incredulously.
"Oh, Martha," Nettie cried, the tears falling unashamedly from her eyes.
"It ain't just scare tactics now," the healer said. "It's murder."
"Chris and the others?" Nathan asked.
"Bob said he sent 'em after Tarrington. They were on their way towards Hatcher's place. Nine of 'em."
"Four against nine -great odds," Nathan said sarcastically.
"And Vin " J.D. began, then stopped as he saw Nettie's pained expression.
"Alright, now," Jackson said quickly putting his hand over Nettie's. "They ain't great odds but they ain't unusual either, right?" he smiled reassuringly at her.
"Vin kin shoot the cork from a bottle without breakin' the glass usin' his left hand," J.D. said, taking up the cause.
Nettie looked at them both fearfully, then gripped Nathan's hand with all her might and nodded as she took a deep breath.
"Vin promised he'd see me soon," she said. "Boy knows better than to break his word to me."
+ + + + + + +
"Hatch " Tarrington began to shout again when a figure in black appeared on the front porch. His hat was low over his eyes, his hands resting easily at his sides. Tarrington peered closely at the image and Larabee saw the familiar cast of fear on the man's face as he realized who he was facing.
"Larabee," Tarrington said. "You belong in Four Corners. This ain't your business."
"You made it my business when you burned out Nettie Wells," Larabee answered. "You made it federal business when you killed Tom Carter."
"You gonna take on all of us?" Tarrington answered. "Even you're not that good."
Larabee looked over the rest of Tarrington's men.
"I reckon I'm good enough to handle anyone who needs eight men to take on an old woman and a boy."
"You came all the way out here alone " Tarrington stopped when he and Larabee both saw the movement of a man pulling his gun. Before Chris could clear leather, the hired man was dead on the ground, the echo of a rifle shot hanging in the still air. Larabee let out a slow breath.
"Hold your fire!" Tarrington shouted. He looked over at the dead man, then back to the gunfighter.
"I might've brought along some help," Larabee said with a shrug.
"You got that damn sharpshooter with you, don't you?"
Chris smiled coldly.
"He's a good friend of Nettie Wells. Took it kinda personal," Chris answered.
"Still only takes one bullet to bring you down, Larabee," Tarrington threatened.
"I'm done tradin' insults, Tarrington," Chris said moving forward. "You and your men are under arrest. Surrender your guns and come in with me to Four Corners or get to shootin'. I ain't got all day."
"You in a hurry to die, cowboy?" Tarrington sneered.
Larabee glared at the murderer, at the rest of his men.
"I just figure it's gonna take me a powerful long time to dig this many graves."
Tarrington pulled his gun and took aim. Larabee drew a split second faster, shooting Tarrington before diving for cover as all hell broke loose.
Buck came riding from inside the barn out the pasture fence, guns blazing, mowing down two of Tarrington's men. Ezra appeared on foot from behind the Hatcher's well, taking out another man as he covered Larabee's flight.
Four men remained on horseback, confused, firing aimlessly at their assailants. One more fell from his saddle as a rifle barked again. Tarrington was bleeding badly, but managed to grab hold of one of the men still on horseback. The hired man pulled him up into the saddle and headed his horse back to where they'd come from.
Chris took down another man, then mounted the riderless horse in one swift motion while Buck sped after a horseman who had split from the group. He shouted an order to stop, but the man continued riding until Wilmington's bullet found him.
The last two riders took off, one riding double with the bleeding Tarrington, as Chris Larabee closed in behind them.
The hired men were still shooting, aiming in the direction of the rifle fire coming from a stand of trees at the edge of Hatcher's property.
A sniper's bullet found the rider carrying Tarrington. Unable to hold on by himself, Tarrington fell from the horse as well as Chris approached.
The last rider fired once more into the trees as he passed and Chris watched with satisfaction, then horror as the rider fell to the ground seconds before Vin fell from his stand in the trees.
Larabee dismounted, glancing at the still form of the tracker on the ground, but Buck was already at Vin's side. Chris walked with gun drawn to where Tarrington lay.
"You're under arrest, Tarrington," he said. "And you're damn lucky I'm the one holding a gun on you instead of Vin Tanner."
Tarrington held a hand to his bloody chest and Chris saw it made no difference. The man would not live to return to Four Corners.
"Worth it?" Larabee asked.
"You're a gunfighter, Larabee," Tarrington whispered through labored breaths. "What the hell you doin' defendin' a bunch of sod busters?"
"Gave 'em my word," Chris answered simply.
"Yeah, well," Tarrington said, fading, "Who'da thought you'd keep it?"
Chris turned away from the dead man and ran to where Vin lay cradled in Buck's arms.
"He dead?" Buck asked Chris as the gunfighter approached.
"Half way to hell as we speak," Chris answered. He looked down at Vin. "How bad?"
"Don't know," Buck answered. "Looks like a bullet just grazed his head. I don't know if anything else got broke when he fell, but you can bet that knee of his "
"Yeah," Chris interrupted, wincing. He glanced back at the homestead to see Ezra urging a wagon team towards them. Larabee shook his head in wonder at the gambler, finding himself continually amazed at the kinship between Standish and the tracker which seemed to intensify whenever Vin was in trouble.
"Ez is bringin' help," he told Buck, nodding towards the wagon's approach.
"You alright?" Buck asked, looking up at Chris.
"Not a scratch," he answered, then thought back to the first shot - the one that took down Tarrington's man before he could draw on Chris. He judged the distance from the stand of trees to Hatcher's front porch.
"Helluva shot from here," he said softly, looking at Vin.
"Good man to have on your side, huh?" Buck asked him.
+ + + + + + +
Vin Tanner lay on the sofa in the Hatcher parlor while Ellen Hatcher cut the thread from the stitches she had placed in his forehead. A darkening bruise covered half his face, a souvenir of his fall from the tree. Carefully Ellen peeled back the flap of pant leg revealing the ugly, swollen knee. She shook her head and stood up, crossing to where the others stood.
"I cleaned the wound, sewed it up, but I don't know what more to do for him," she said apologetically.
"Best you get him to that healer in town," said Dan. "Ellen's right good at doctorin' our animals, but I expect he's gonna need more help than we can give him here."
"I hate to move him," said Buck cautiously. "Hell, we don't know if we didn't do more harm just loadin' him on that wagon to get him here."
"Perhaps I should retrieve Mr. Jackson from Four Corners?" Ezra asked.
"Ain't no need to haul Nathan here," said a tired voice from behind them. "I kin ride."
Chris led the others to Vin's side. The eye below the cut was swollen in the mass of purple flesh that made up the right side of his face.
"You can't even sit up," Chris said as he watched Vin struggle in vain to right himself.
"Damn room's spinnin'," Vin complained.
"Yeah, that tends to happen when you get yourself shot out of a tree," Chris agreed, helping him to lean against the back of the sofa.
Vin peered down reluctantly at his left knee, lightly fingering the torn material of the pant leg.
"It feel worse, Vin?" Buck asked. "Do ya think it's broke?"
"Hell, Bucklin, I can't feel much at all. The whole damn leg is numb," Vin answered.
Buck glanced up at Chris.
"Well?" he asked the gunfighter.
"Well what're ya askin' him for?" Vin said, annoyed. "Ain't his leg about to fall off!"
"And who's fault is that?" Chris demanded. "I don't recall anyone holdin' a gun to your head - makin' you ride all over creation with that mess," he said, pointing to the swollen joint.
"And we'd be plantin' you next to Tarrington if I hadn't," Vin countered.
"Gentlemen, gentlemen," said Ezra with hands raised as the Hatchers began to back away from them with growing apprehension.
"I see no need to air our soiled linen before these fine people who have already suffered enough trauma for the day. Might I suggest we reinstate the truce so wisely established until we return to our own quarters?"
"If you want to take him home, you can borrow my wagon," Dan Hatcher offered. Ezra wasn't sure whether the generous offer stemmed more from the farmer's gratitude at the gun battle undertaken on his behalf, or the desire to see the sharpshooter and the gunfighter at a safe distance from his home.
"We accept," Ezra said, hastily turning his back on the glares emanating from both Tanner and Larabee. "And promise to return it to you post-haste."
"I've got some bedding to line the wagon with," Ellen said as she made her way into the back bedroom of the house, happy for a reason to leave the tense drama unfolding in her parlor.
"I'll see to the wagon," said Dan, seeing his chance to escape as well.
Vin settled back into the sofa with closed eyes, a pained sigh escaping his lips as Larabee turned to Standish.
"Nathan tells me bringin' him home in the wagon was a bad idea, I'm comin' lookin' for you, Standish," Chris threatened.
"My dear Mr. Larabee, I do so wish you would make up your mind as to whether Mr. Tanner's health concerns you or not. This constant fishtailing is tiresome," Ezra replied, unimpressed.
"Ah, boys, let's see to buryin' that bunch outside," Buck said, quickly stepping between the two.
"I'm bringin' Tarrington back to Four Corners so the folks can see justice was done," Chris said. "We can put him in the wagon."
"I ain't ridin' in no wagon with that murderin' son-of-a "
"We'll tie him onto Peso, Vin," Buck said, shooting an exasperated glance at Chris. "We wouldn't make you ride all the way back to Four Corners with a corpse."
"Don't want him stinkin' up my horse, either," Vin complained.
"Well let's all just sit down and find out what would make you happy, Tanner," Larabee growled sarcastically.
"Gettin' you outta my face, for starters," Vin shot back.
"That's it!" Buck shouted, "Ez and me have listened to the last round of bickerin' between you two we can stand." He turned to Vin, hands on hips as he continued his tirade.
"Vin - he got drunk. He got stupid drunk wallowin' in self-pity for a horrible thing that happened to him. Yeah, it happened a long time ago, and yeah, he's hurt a lot of people - includin' his own self - 'cause he can't let it go. Now you either accept that flaw in his character - like I did - or you turn your back on him. But he ain't gonna change just 'cause you think he should."
Buck swung around to face Chris, turning his back on Vin.
"And Chris? Vin's a friend of mine and I ain't gonna listen to you bad mouthin' him anymore. You know better'n any of us how important he is to us all, and to have them hateful words comin' from you " he stopped, shaking his head in fury. "He's spent his whole life lookin' for someone to trust and if you don't know how important that is to a man just remember back to that moment this mornin' on the front porch."
Buck turned to Ezra who had remained silent, and mildly amused at the dressing down of two of the most dangerous men he had ever known.
"You got somethin' to say, Ez?" Buck asked.
"You have expressed my sentiments exactly, Mr. Wilmington," Ezra said, nodding his approval.
"Fine," said Buck, heading out the door. "Let's go bury those bastards."
+ + + + + + +
Chris stood in the awkward silence of the parlor. He stole a glance at Vin who sat on the sofa, once again idly plucking at loose threads along the tear of his pant leg.
"That was a helluva shot, Vin," Larabee said finally.
"Well, puttin' me up in that tree was a good idea," Vin said quietly.
"Yeah, well," Chris said with some hesitation. "I should'a had a better plan for gettin' ya back down."
Vin smiled slightly, running his hand gently along the side of his face.
"You look like hell, Vin," Larabee said. "Nettie's gonna have my head on a stick bringin' you back like this."
"I reckon she'd be more upset if we came back snipin' at each other yet," Vin said reluctantly.
Chris sighed deeply and set his eyes hard on the tracker.
"I ain't a man to count on, Vin," he said. "I ain't gonna promise not to get drunk again." He crossed to where Vin sat and extended his hand. "But I do regret the things I said, lettin' you down. Trustin' you to back my play is somethin' I don't take for granted."
Vin shook the outstretched hand in silence. Chris knew the tracker was still sorting his thoughts out - he could almost see Vin struggling to put the words together that would say what he felt.
"I'm gonna go help Buck and Ez," Larabee said, giving his friend time to think. "You take it easy. It's gonna be a hard ride home."
Vin nodded, grateful for the chance to be alone for a while. He fingered the stitches on his forehead, then slowly eased himself back down on the sofa until his head rested on the arm and sleep claimed him.
+ + + + + + +
They had waited until morning to leave, giving Vin one more night of rest before tackling the arduous journey back to Four Corners. Now Ezra and Buck carefully carried Vin out of the Hatcher house and laid him in the wagon lined with quilts and pillows. Vin looked about him and saw Chris standing with the horses. He strained for a look at Peso, then settled back in some surprise at the sight of Tarrington's body tied across the saddle of Chris' horse.
Ezra packed pillows and blankets around Vin to keep him as secure as possible for the trip. Buck tied Peso and the Black to the back of the wagon, then brought Chaucer over for Ezra and climbed into the saddle himself. Chris pulled himself up onto the wagon seat and checked on Vin behind him.
"Thanks, Chris," Vin said. "For Peso, I mean."
"Strictly self-preservation," Chris said. "I wasn't about to try to put anything on that devil's back other than your butt."
Vin laughed, and Chris welcomed the sound.
Dan and Ellen Hatcher came out of their house to stand at the foot of the wagon.
"Don't know what to say to thank you all for what you did," Dan said. "When I think of Nettie and poor Tom Carter " he shook his head sadly.
"Just glad Tarrington and his boys decided to stop for the night," Buck said.
"Yeah, well," said Dan, looking at Vin in the wagon, "it still ain't easy seein' a man risk his life for you."
"That, Mr. Hatcher," said Ezra, "appears to be one of Mr. Tanner's many talents." He looked at Vin with a sympathetic smile. "We will, however, need to work on his method with some diligence."
"I've packed some food for you," Ellen said, handing a large box to Ezra. The gambler tipped his hat and loaded the box next to Vin.
"We'll get the wagon back to you as soon as possible," Chris promised. He shook hands with Dan, and tipped his hat to Ellen as the couple said their goodbyes to the rest of his men.
"Let's get a move on, Ez," Chris told the gambler. Standish climbed out of the wagon and took Chaucer from Buck. Chris looked back at Vin, the dark bruises of the tracker's face standing out in stark contrast to the white of the pillow beneath his head. Ellen had cut the left leg of Vin's pants off above the knee so she could wrap it loosely in a cloth soaked in linseed. Just being carried from the house to the wagon had caused Tanner to break out in a sweat and Chris felt his stomach tighten at the thought of the miles of rocky terrain they would have to cover on their return to Four Corners, each jolt of the wagon sure to cause the young man spasms of pain.
"You need us to stop you say so," he told Vin. "If it takes us a week to get back to Four Corners so be it."
"And have Nettie send the cavalry out after us?" asked Vin. "Just drive, Larabee, I'd rather take my chances with this knee than her tongue."
+ + + + + + +
The solemn procession made its way slowly into Four Corners. Josiah stepped out of the church and crossed himself as he saw Chris driving a wagon, a body draped lifelessly over the gunfighter's horse, and Peso walking riderless.
"Vin," he whispered in silent prayer until he saw a familiar hat peeking out from the side of the wagon. He ran to meet his friends, sending one of the townspeople for Nathan in anticipation of injuries as yet unknown.
"Buck, Ezra," he said, nodding towards them as they dismounted. "Chris?" he questioned as he looked at the tracker lying unconscious in the wagon.
"He's gonna need some doctorin'," Chris said as he swung down from the seat.
"I can see that," Josiah said. "Good Lord, what happened to him?"
"Got shot out of a tree," Buck said. "Put a crease in his head and didn't help that knee any."
"Who's the unfortunate soul?" Josiah asked of the dead man on Chris' horse.
"Tarrington," Chris answered.
"The others?" the preacher asked.
"We left 'em where they fell," Buck answered coldly. "Brought Tarrington back
to show Nettie the job's done."
"Help us get him to Nathan?" Chris asked as he and Buck slid the tracker from the back of the wagon. Ezra led the horses to the livery while Josiah took up his familiar burden and together with Buck and Chris walked the well-worn path to the clinic.
An hour later Nathan joined Buck, Ezra and Chris on the clinic's porch. He took the proffered swig of whiskey from Ezra's flask and handed it back, wiping his hand across his mouth.
"Thanks, Ezra," he said. "Gettin' mighty dry."
"You're quite welcome, Mr. Jackson," Ezra said returning the flask to his jacket pocket. "And now if you would be so kind as to reassure Mr. Larabee that bringing Mr. Tanner here in no way further endangered his health, I would be in much greater certainty regarding my own."
"No, there ain't nothin' wrong inside. He's got a concussion from the fall, and enough bruises to cover two bodies, but there ain't nothin' broke."
"What about his knee?" Chris asked.
Nathan took a deep breath and sighed slowly.
"Well, it's a mess, that's sure enough," he admitted. "I'm wrappin' it in herbs and liniment, but the cold fact is I just don't know. There's muscles and ligaments and all sorts a'stuff inside a knee I don't know half enough about. The best I can say for now is he has got to stay off it completely."
"What'd Nettie say?" Chris asked with some trepidation.
"She ain't seen him yet," Nathan answered. "She's been stayin' in a room at the hotel with Casey. I let her go yesterday. She's doin' real well."
"She walkin' again?" Buck asked hopefully.
"Needs plenty help, but yeah, she's doin' alright," said Nathan proudly.
"Seein' Nettie up and around alone'll help that boy out," Buck said with a smile. "I'll go get her."
Wilmington was down the stairs and across the street before Nathan could say another word.
"If you are assured of Mr. Tanner's imminent recovery, I shall leave to return the Hatcher's wagon to them," Ezra offered.
"Ezra? You offerin' to ride back out there? You sure you didn't fall outta no tree?" asked Nathan with surprise.
"No, once again Mr. Tanner assumed the greater risk," Ezra answered, looking at Chris. "A noble gesture perhaps, but it is the constant in an equation I believe is becoming all too common."
Larabee glared back at him.
"It was his decision to come along, Standish. It's always his decision. He's the one who chooses to put his own life in danger every damn time."
"True," Ezra agreed, "One would assume, then, that it would be a sacrifice worth bearing in mind, Mr. Larabee."
"I already told him I never take his gun for granted," Chris countered.
Ezra faced him squarely, his gaze meeting Larabee's head on.
"Perhaps, sir, you should be as passionate about his friendship." The gambler turned to the others, nodded his goodbye and walked back to the livery to make his arrangements.
+ + + + + + +
Chris watched as Buck and J.D. made their way slowly across the street, bearing a determined-looking Nettie between them. By the time the three had made their way to the top of the steps, the old woman was sweating and breathing heavily, but her eyes were as bright and sure as ever.
She stopped at the door to the clinic and faced Larabee.
"You end it?" she asked him pointedly.
"Tarrington's at the undertaker's," he answered curtly.
"I ain't got no mind for that trash," she said disgustedly. "I mean did you end this nonsense with Vin?"
"He's got to have his say," Chris answered truthfully. "I think we got an understanding now, but I reckon he's got somethin' on his mind yet."
Nettie nodded, patting his shoulder as she passed him to enter the clinic.
Nettie Wells bit her lip as she took in the mottled face, black eye and swollen knee of the tracker. Slowly Tanner's
eyes opened and he looked with surprise on his visitor. Nettie found a quick smile and looked at him with bright eyes to disguise her concern.
"You gonna sleep all day, boy?" she chided him, crossing carefully to sit on his bed with Nathan's help.
"You're walkin'!" Vin said excitedly.
"Course I'm walkin'," she answered defiantly. "I took things one day at a time and did just what Nathan said I should and I'm right as rain. Now don't that sound like good advice?"
He smiled shyly at her and shook his head. She never lost an opportunity to shame him into submission.
Nettie took Vin's hand in hers and smiled warmly at him, dropping her tough façade to show him her concern.
"Pain bad?" she asked softly.
"Hurts some," he admitted. "Kinda wonderin' if I done it this time. If it's gonna get better at all."
"Sure it will," she nodded with encouragement. "Sure it will. Just like me - you'll see." She looked hard at him, then. "Chris says you got somethin' to say yet."
Vin squirmed uncomfortably under her gaze.
"He says he ain't promisin' never to get drunk on their memory again," he said. "Says he's sorry for the words we had, for lettin' me down, but that he ain't gonna change."
"And you're thinkin' that ain't right?" asked Nettie.
Vin looked at her, then out the clinic window.
"I'm thinkin' I had a lot of people die on me and I ain't never took to drink like that."
Nettie watched him sort through his emotions.
"Vin?" she asked finally. "You ever think maybe you're stronger than he is?"
Vin turned back to her, and Nettie saw the faintest trace of a new understanding begin to dawn on the young man's face. He looked at the woman, his eyes questioning the truth of her statement. He looked away, then, biting his lip in deep thought.
"You look on him like he's more than a man," Nettie continued. "You see a gunfighter who faces death unafraid and you figure that means he's stronger than you." Nettie gently took Vin's bruised face in her hands and turned him to her. "Maybe he's more afraid of livin' than dyin', Vin. And maybe you're the one who's strong - strong enough to face your fear in the light of day."
"He ain't gettin' drunk because he don't care," Vin said with slow understanding. "He's drinkin' 'cause it scares him that he can care that much."
Nettie nodded towards her young man with meaning.
"And might again."
+ + + + + + +
For a full week, Vin lay in the clinic enduring Nathan's hot packs, liniment rubs, ice packs, herbal wraps, bedpans and laudanum. Nathan marveled at the tracker's silence. He suffered the healer's ministrations without so much as a curse or complaint, even when Nathan began the painful therapy of returning movement to his aching knee.
The others visited regularly, joining him in his meals, playing checkers, reading the latest news from the Clarion. Nettie returned each day for her own continued therapy with Nathan and cheered Vin on in his rehabilitation. Chris' contact with Vin had been no more, and no less than the others. They talked, joked, and discussed business as usual, but Larabee knew the words were yet to be spoken that would finally lay their trouble to rest.
On Saturday morning, Nathan pronounced Vin well enough to go outside on crutches if he confined himself to sitting outside the jail in his usual place beside Chris. Nathan took full advantage of the opportunity to point out that strict adherence to his schedule of healing had contributed greatly to guaranteeing Vin's recovery and urged him to remember that the next time he found himself in the clinic. Vin's response was for Nathan to remember not to waste his breath.
But the tracker was grateful to find himself basking in the warm sun, his leg stretched out before him, propped on a fancy footstool borrowed from Ezra's room. He glanced down the street to see Chris walking towards him carefully balancing two cups of coffee from the saloon.
"I'd come help ya but Nathan's watchin' from across the street," Vin called to him.
"I am not!" Nathan argued, stepping out from behind the barbershop and heading up the stairs to his clinic.
Chris laughed as he handed a steaming cup of coffee to Vin before taking his own seat beside the tracker.
The two friends sat quietly watching the daily routine of the town. Vin sipped the coffee carefully and sighed contentedly. He glanced at Chris, then looked back down the street.
"I can't promise I ain't gonna die before you," he said quietly.
Chris looked over at Vin with surprise, then sudden understanding.
"Fact is, with this price on my head it's more'n likely I will," he continued. He turned to face Larabee then, settling the coffee cup in his lap. "I guess that's the flaw in my character you're gonna have to accept - or walk away."
Chris nodded, swallowing hard.
"One more thing," Vin said, his eyes narrowing. "You ever use any of them words against me again, or call me out, drunk or not, I ain't turnin' the other cheek."
"I'll remember that," Chris promised.
"I spent the better part of my life takin' that shit from strangers. I don't need it comin' from my friends."
Chris smiled slightly and nodded.
"I've been reminded of that recently," he said.
"Yeah," said Chris. "Seems you got a lot of friends around here."
Vin nodded, smiling. He took another sip of coffee and cleared his throat.
"When Nathan cuts me loose from here," he said carefully, "I'm thinkin' on takin' a ride out to Little Butte."
Chris eyed him cautiously.
"You want some company?" he asked.
"You gonna be ready to go when I say?" Vin challenged.
Chris met his gaze.